DURHAM, N.C. - This years final results arent in, but Duke is almost certain to finish in the top 20 of the Directors Cup for the ninth straight year. Duke is consistently among the top two or three private schools in the prestigious annual rankings. That competition measures athletic strength across the board and reflects the fact that most Duke sports are competitive on a national level.
Most sports … but not baseball.
Duke baseball has fallen a long way from the glory days of Jack Coombs and Ace Parker, when the Blue Devils were the preeminent baseball program in North Carolina. Since 1961, when the Blue Devils won the ACC and played in the College World Series (Duke’s third trip to the World Series in 10 years), Duke has had just one season with a winning conference record. Parker, who retired in 1966, was the last Duke coach with an overall winning record in ACC play. He coached Duke’s last NCAA team – 51 years ago.
Clearly, Duke baseball has fallen on hard times. A succession of coaches have tried and failed to rescue the program from the doldrums.
Just a few weeks removed from leading Appalachian State to within three wins of the College World Series, the energetic young coach was introduced to the media at Jack Coombs Field last Thursday. He was remarkably upbeat about his chances of reviving the long-dormant Blue Devil program.
“I think in a lot of ways, we’ve got a lot of what we need, in terms of a great university to sell and in terms of the best conference in college baseball to sell,” he said.
Is that optimism justified?
Based on his track record, it is – Pollard’s first head coaching job was at Pfeiffer, where he inherited a losing program and within five years produced the best season in school history – 41-14 in 2004. He moved on to Appalachian State where he inherited a program that was 92-221 under the previous coach. He took over a 10-43 team and by his third year, his Mountaineer teams had started a string of six straight 30-plus win seasons – culminating in this year’s 41-18 masterpiece.
Not only did Pollard produce a consistent winner on the field, he energized the fan base – turning baseball into a major spectator sport, first at Pfeiffer, then at App State.
That’s something that Duke – where the best crowds come on sunny days when the coeds use the hill behind the right field line as a free tanning salon – could definitely use.
Pollard suggested that the best promotional tool is success on the field.
“I know that ultimately, it’s our job to put a product out there on the field that gets everybody excited,” he said. “Whether it was at Pfeiffer or whether it was at Appalachian State, part of the process was putting a program together and putting a product out on the field that got people excited. Then there was an opportunity where people wanted to invest in us.”
How far is Duke from success?
The Blue Devils finished last season 21-34 (9-21 in the ACC). And that was with one of the best pitchers in college baseball in the rotation. But Marcus Stroman has taken his strong right arm to the Toronto Blue Jays organization (he was the 22nd pick of the first round of June’s MLB draft), leaving Pollard with a big hole to fill on what was already a mediocre team.
The new Duke coach got to see his new team close up last spring as the Blue Devils twice lost to his App State powerhouse.
“Having played twice against Duke, I had an opportunity to see those guys close,” he said. “It was early. I do know this, there are some very good guys coming in that [recruiting] class, guys who from my conversations with other college coaches are draft-quality type players. And there are some guys coming back from injury that I haven’t had an opportunity to see, who are, as I understand it, very good players and they will help us.”
The thing Pollard likes most about the team he inherits is the attitude of the returning kids.
“Those guys are hungry,” he said. “They’re very invested. They’ve bought in. They love Duke – that’s a great starting point. We’ll work through some things as you always do when you have a transition. But when you have a group of guys who are hungry to work and invested in where they are, that’s a great, great starting point.”
Still, before Duke can challenge the heavyweights in the ACC – which Pollard pointed out was the top RPI conference in America this past spring – he and his new staff must hit the recruiting trail. That’s how it worked at Appalachian State, where his first recruiting class – which produced four Major League draft picks – turned out to be the foundation of his successful program.
“The recruiting process is first and foremost,” he said. “We went out and tried to identify guys who were the right fit for Appalachian. We hit a home run with those first couple of recruiting classes, then we started to build from there.”
If Pollard wants to hit a home run in his first at-bat at Duke, he’ll have to get busy right away. The 2013 recruiting class will largely be locked up this summer.
“I think the biggest key is identifying the guy, the student-athlete that’s the right type of fit for the university,” he said. “Whether it’s Pfeiffer, Appalachian State or Duke, that’s the key – finding those guys that are the right fit, not only on the field, but are going to be the right fit in the classroom and in the community. And it’s obviously different. The guy that we went after at Pfeiffer was different than the guy we went after at Appalachian State. And the type of student-athlete that you have to attract at Duke University is different from those two schools.”
But Pollard does have a very important insight into the kind of kid Duke needs. He is a graduate of Davidson, where he was one of the best pitchers in school history (he’s third in school history in career wins, eighth in strikeouts and fourth in inning pitched). He can remember pitching against Duke at Jack Coombs Field.
“I pitched on this field back in ’94 or ’95 [actually it was once each year],” he said. “I was fortunate that I got a couple of wins under my belt against Duke -- one of which I didn’t deserve. I was coming in in a save situation and I hung a slider to give up the lead. We ended up winning the ballgame, so I kind of snaked that win.
“I have real fond memories of playing against Coach [Steve] Traylor’s teams in the early 90s. Still to this day, I stay in touch with guys off that team.”
The experience of being a student-athlete at a school with a very similar academic profile to Duke should help him target the right prospects for the Blue Devils.
“I think the most important thing is the understanding – understanding the demands that a Duke student-athlete faces and the uniqueness of that experience, working for a Duke degree and balancing playing ACC competition week in and week out,” he said. “It’s not easy. I can emphasize with those guys. I’ve been there and done it.”
Pollard was also an assistant coach at Davidson, where he served as recruiting coordinator.
“I mentioned this when I was here on the interview last week – I feel like I can rely on some of the recruiting experiences I had at Davidson,” he said. “At Davidson, you’ve got to recruit that type of student, who’s also got to be a really good baseball player. And also having some good relationships from my time at Davidson with some coaches at very good academic schools I think will give us a leg up.”
The new Duke coach already has a strategy worked out.
“We absolutely want to recruit nationwide,” he said. “I do think there are some hotbeds where you have a great opportunity to find not only the type of baseball player you’re looking for, but also the type of student that you need. But we’re going to make sure we hit every part of the country to make sure we find guys. Certainly the Northeast is going to be important to us. Florida is going to be an important state for us. California and Texas. The one thing I mentioned in my interview is that I’ve got a lot of relationships in North Carolina and we’re not going to turn our back on North Carolina. We’re going to make sure if there’s a kid here who’s a good fit for Duke University that we go after him hard.”
Pollard believes that he’s got a lot to sell, even beyond Duke’s standing and the ACC’s strength as a conference. For instance, he loves the idea that the Blue Devils play a large part of their schedule in Durham’s Triple A ballpark downtown.
“I think this can’t be overrated – the opportunity to play in the downtown park is going to be a tremendous part of the recruiting process for us,” he said. “I say that with certainty because when we had the opportunity back in March to bring our team from Appalachian State down and play in that park, we were about 8-10 days from playing at LSU in arguably the very best ballpark in college baseball, and as soon as we walked in the corner down the right field line, the camera phones went out. There was a ‘Wow!’ factor to that ballpark.
“So I firmly believe that student-athletes will be excited about the opportunity to play downtown.”
Pollard also believes that even though Marcus Stroman will no longer pitch for the Devils, his high selection in the draft will pay dividends on the recruiting trail.
“I think it shows any top student-athlete in the country that’s looking for a great academic university where they can play at a high level of baseball, that you can come in and get a great Duke degree and play in a high-level conference like the ACC, but also have that opportunity to go out and potentially make a career out of this,” he said.
Pollard had 13 players drafted during his tenure at Appalachian State. That’s good recruiting, but it’s also evidence of the ability to develop talent.
“One of the things we took a lot of pride in at Appalachian is that none of those guys were drafted before they got there,” he said. “They were all guys who came in with good Division I tools that turned themselves into pro prospects during their time at Appalachian. I think time in the weight room is critical. I think keeping them healthy is a big, big part of it. Putting guys in a position to be successful, but there are no shortcuts to it. It’s a lot of hard work.”
Pollard arrived at Duke ready to go to work. But all the hard work in the world won’t matter if Duke baseball doesn’t get the support it needs from the administration. That support has not always been there -- one of the big reasons that Duke baseball has languished so long.
But Pollard is convinced that Duke athletic director Kevin White and his staff are committed to bringing Duke baseball up to the level of the school’s other sports.
“I feel great about that,” Pollard said. “From my conversations with Dr. White and my conversations with [associate athletic director] Brad Berndt, I believe that everybody’s on board and this is a collective effort. That’s one of the things that makes this opportunity so appealing. As I tried to do my homework, everybody I talked with had great things to say about this athletic administration.
“One of the comments Dr. White made last night [when Pollard was offered and accepted the job] -- I said, ‘I’m going to hit the ground running,’ and he said, ‘I know, I’m going to be right beside you.’
“I thought that was a great way to say it.”
It’s not likely to happen overnight, but all the pieces finally seem to be coming together – a coach who is a proven winner and program builder and a strong commitment from the administration.
Can Duke baseball recapture its former glory?
“I think if fans come out and see us play, they’re going to see an aggressive brand of baseball, but it starts first and foremost with the recruiting process,” Pollard said. “We’re going to be relentless and we’re going to be tireless.”